Taboo TV: 8 revolutionary firsts in American television

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We can see just about anything on TV today, but there were strict rules governing what couldn’t be seen, done, or said in the earlier days of home entertainment. Additionally, there were many topics that were simply taboo and therefore avoided. However, as time has progressed, certain shows and characters have challenged censorship standards and broken down many social barriers. In this list, we introduce you to 8 of the most important and revolutionary firsts that have helped to shape television into what it is today.

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1. First couple shown in bed

Many shows in the 50s and 60s, such as I Love Lucy, depicted married couples sleeping in separate beds. Surprisingly, the first show to depict a couple in bed together was Mary Kay and Johnny in 1947, in which the two stars were married in real life. As for couples that weren’t married in real life, The Munsters (1964), Bewitched (1964), and The Brady Bunch (1969) are all often cited as the first example. In cartoon world, The Flintstones depicted the first animated couple in bed in the early 60s.

Mary Kay and Johnny

2. First on-screen toilet

Toilets and bathroom-related topics were a major taboo in the early days of television, and for many years censorship ensured that American eyes would be safe from the horrors of viewing a toilet while watching their favorite shows (the most famous example is The Brady Bunch, which filmed many scenes in a bathroom without a toilet). The first show to get around the censorship rules was the pilot episode of Leave It to Beaver in 1957, in which Wally and the Beaver hid a baby alligator in a toilet tank. The episode was rejected by CBS, and producers were forced to compromise by only showing the tank of the toilet–the toilet bowl was not allowed to make its debut.

Leave It To Beaver, first toilet on TV

3. First male nudity

Network television’s first R-rated series, NYPD Blue, is well-known for stirring up controversy by not hesitating to show Dennis Franz’s naked backside, but the first instance of male nudity actually occurred in 1973 on M*A*S*H. The episode “The Sniper” features Radar briefly losing his towel as he runs from the sniper. 1973 was a good year for nudity, also giving us the first instance of female nudity (Valerie Perrine in Steambath, a made-for-TV movie).

4. First bellybutton

Bellybuttons might be tame by today’s standards, but exposed navels were considered taboo once upon a time. Many shows like I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, and Star Trek employed a variety of navel-hiding tactics such as using navel jewels, flesh-colored plugs, and high-waisted costumes in order to follow censorship guidelines. The first instance of a non-accidental bared bellybutton is said to have occurred in the early 70s, thanks to Cher on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.

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5. First swear words

America’s first F-bomb is said to have been dropped in 1981 by comedian Charles Rocket on Saturday Night Live, resulting in a mass firing of cast and crew. The first usage of “shit” is said to have happened in 1999 on Chicago Hope.

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6. First same-sex marriage

Although many same-sex couples are still fighting for their right to marry today, the first same-sex marriage on television happened way back in 1991 on the sitcom Roc. Soon after, high profile shows such as Northern Exposure, Roseanne, and Friends also depicted same-sex marriages.

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7. First openly gay teenager

The first openly gay teenager on daytime television, Billy Douglas, was portrayed by Ryan Phillippe in 1993 on the soap One Life to Live. Primetime’s first openly gay teenager, Rickie Vasquez, was portrayed by Wilson Cruz on 1994’s cult series My So-Called Life and quickly became a role model for many young men and women.

Rickie Vasquez, My So-Called Life

8. First trans woman to have a recurring role

While trans men and women have been depicted in television for some time now, the majority of roles have sadly gone to actors and actresses that aren’t actually transgender. The first trans woman to have a recurring role on primetime television was Candis Cayne of Dirty Sexy Money, in 2007. More recently, Laverne Cox has been making headlines as fan-favorite Sophia on Orange is the New Black.

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There you have it, 8 revolutionary TV firsts that broke taboos and changed history. What’s missing from our list? Let us know in the comments what you think!

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15 replies
    • Nathan
      Nathan says:

      From your link: “Plato’s Stepchildren” is often incorrectly cited as the first white and black interracial kiss on US television. That honour goes to a kiss between Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nancy Sinatra on “Movin’ With Nancy” in 1967, a year before “Plato’s Stepchildren” aired.

      Reply
  1. Miapai
    Miapai says:

    Be interesting to compare this with say the UK or another western European country. Bet they were a lot less prudish.

    Reply
    • Jon
      Jon says:

      An article about American culture wouldn’t be complete without a passive-aggressive comment from a smug European.

      You think so highly of yourselves but call us the arrogant ones. Laughable.

      Reply
      • Roberto
        Roberto says:

        Nothing was passive-aggressive in the comment, yet you felt threatened. Is the culture of fear? Or what was it?

        Reply
        • matt
          matt says:

          *asshat, Europeans commenting on American culture is interesting. Europeans judge American culture and American society just as hard as Americans do to Europeans.

          Reply
      • NS
        NS says:

        No, Jon, they’re calling you the IGNORANT ones. And they’re right. Do you know the difference between ignorance and arrogance? Probably not. Laughable.

        Reply
      • Andrew
        Andrew says:

        Dude, it’s not passive-anything. By any standard America is a LOT more purient, religious and conservative than many other parts of the western world – that’s just a fact.

        Reply
  2. Miapai
    Miapai says:

    I’m from Chicago, Sherlock. Probably best to keep your insecurities to yourself, rather that showcase them for the world to see. Unless, of course, you want to look like an obnoxious asshole.

    And as if happens I was right.

    “On 13 November 1965, Tynan participated in a live TV debate, broadcast as part of the BBC’s late-night satirical show BBC-3. He was asked whether he would allow a play to be staged in which sexual intercourse was represented on the stage, and replied: “Well, I think so, certainly. I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word ‘fuck’ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden. I think that anything which can be printed or said can also be seen.”

    Reply
  3. Brian Siano
    Brian Siano says:

    First use of “bullshit” was probably in 1977 or 1978, during the first network broadcast of the film “Network.” The word was so integral to the film that CBS decided to allow two instances of its use to be broadcast.

    Reply

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